Stones scraped Donald Blakeslee’s knees, but he was used to that. Using his mud-covered gloves, he picked the pebbles and tossed them away from the excavation area. The site was full of tools like shovels, brushes, and spoons. Both he and his crew had spent weeks sifting through the ground in Kansas. They kept searching for something interesting to research. But then he winced at an unusually sharp pain. Except for this time, a stone wasn’t to blame.
Blakeslee’s hands were always dirty. Even as a kid, he spent his time mucking around in the dirt to see what was hidden underneath the ground. This proved to be an issue for his mother. As soon as she planted some new seeds and flowers, Blakeslee would uproot everything and replace her precious seeds with his most beloved toys. She initially assumed this was just a phase. But eventually, she realized this was just the beginning.
Blakeslee was also enthralled with history. He even asked his mom to take him to the library when he was 5 years old. But Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss never interested him. He preferred the history section instead. He loved picking up those thick, old books and sifting through their pages. So, while the other kids were busy playing in the children’s section, Blakeslee was in a corner reading a book, and his mom was busy talking with the librarian. Blakeslee's interests eventually turned into desires.
Blakeslee’s mom was worried when he started school. He wasn’t socializing the way most kids his age were. He barely even spoke with his neighbors because he always had his nose stuck in a book. Digging was the only thing he loved doing more than reading. She hoped that school would eventually allow him to become more sociable, but Blakeslee had a greater destiny.
Blakeslee was always a loner. He wasn’t very good at sports either, but he did excel in school. He was a genius too. He pointed out things about history that left his parents dumbfounded. “Did you know Cahokia in Illinois is an ancient American settlement?” His mom had a tough time keeping up with him, but she always encouraged him. Then, his teachers took an interest in young Blakeslee’s passion for history.
Once Blakeslee made it to high school, he was finally surrounded by peers who were on the same intellectual level as him. His fellow students were also focused on their college careers just like he was. So, his history teacher decided to mentor him. Soon, Blakeslee was invited to conferences, and shared books with his teacher. But Blakeslee never imagined his interest would shape his future career.
Blakeslee’s peers were skeptical when he told them he wanted to be an archaeologist, but his teachers and family knew that the past interested him. Plus, he always scoured the library until he found the answers to his questions. He had been a history buff ever since he was old enough to pick up a book. But he never imagined he would make a discovery of his own.
Blakeslee received a PH. D from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It was during his studies that he became interested in early American settlements, sacred sites, and native trails. He eventually took over as president of the Professional Archaeologists of Kansas to focus on the protohistory period, a time before civilization had developed any type of written language. Blakeslee had some pretty big plans and challenges ahead of him.
Blakeslee always wondered if there were other settlements like the Cahokia in Illinois. But it wasn’t until he was 75 years old that he found a potential way to fill a gap in American history. Fortunately, he had the help of researchers he had befriended during his career, which spanned more than five decades. Blakeslee believed he had found what he had been looking for since he was young. And it was full of treasures.
Using various technologies and translated texts, Blakeslee was able to locate what he believed to be the lost city of Etzanoa. In 1601, Spanish conquistadors documented their discovery after stumbling onto the city by accident. They wrote that the locals “napped beneath trees festooned with tinkling gold bells.” But years of research forced Blakeslee to return to Kansas. And yet the question remained, why was Etzanoa considered a “lost city?”
Several explorers continued to look for the vast city. In fact, French explorers returned to the site where the Spanish conquistadors originally found it less than a century earlier. But sadly, the population was destroyed by European illnesses, which decimated the city. Since then, the folks in Arkansas City have found artifacts over the years. But when a young boy’s metal detector beeped wildly, rumors of the city began to spread.
Arkansas City residents had unearthed tons of artifacts from the ground. But one boy’s metal detector found more than he could have hoped for. His discovery didn’t turn out to be a set of knives or spears. He had located a Spanish cannon shot. This only served to prove Blakeslee’s research and theories. Now, all he had to do was start excavating.
“I wanted to see if the archaeology fit [the Spanish conquistadors'] descriptions. Every single detail matched this place,” Blakeslee noted. The similarities were undeniable. Despite their tattooed faces, the community was described as “sturdy and gentle.” This proved to be their downfall. When the conquistadors arrived, they took advantage of their good nature. And Blakeslee’s findings were breathtaking.
The Etzanoa people fled and possibly passed away centuries ago, but their impact on humanity was huge. Using magnetometers, Blakeslee was able to locate storage areas, fire pits and “thatched, beehive-shaped houses” buried underground. His team continued to excavate the area in the hopes of finding more clues that would give them an insight into the way these natives lived.
Blakeslee used the discovery of the city of Etzanoa and the conquistadors’ documents to put pieces of the lost city back together again. "Lots of artifacts have been taken from here. Now we know why. There were 20,000 people living here for over 200 years." Based on his analysis, he believed the natives were farmers and hunters living in a city that was about 5 square miles. Blakeslee had found the mysterious city he had fallen in love with as a child. This discovery undoubtedly brought him and the world a little closer to filling in the missing pieces of American history.